The British historian and filmmaker Taylor Downing’s new book...is the most readable version to date of an episode that holds lessons for today ... Downing’s book makes the most compelling case yet that the Soviet reaction to Able Archer was extraordinary ... The eyewitnesses...give striking accounts ... The World at the Brink will not be the last book on this topic. It cannot prove what Soviet leaders in Moscow said and did over those four days in November. But it does deliver the most complete story to date, and it points the way toward further investigation.
This is a complicated, multifaceted story and Downing deftly provides a complete and gripping account. He weaves together information from a wide array of sources and benefits from having access to new documents released in response to Freedom of Information requests. It reads like a thriller, even though the reader knows how it will turn out. The incident is important and deserves to be more widely known ... Ultimately, this book is a clear and compelling reminder of how much words and actions matter in international relations.
Drawing on documents obtained through the Freedom of Information Act and first-time interviews with national-security experts, Taylor Downing ... speculates that, in the end, Andropov and the other Soviet leaders, conscious of the terrible loss of Soviet life during World War II, 'did not want to push the nuclear button unless they absolutely had to' ... We can say with certainty, thanks to Mr. Downing...that both Soviet and American intelligence got it wrong—the Soviets displaying a scary degree of paranoia and the Americans unable to accept the truth of their paranoia ... In any case...[Mr. Downing should] be congratulated for a splendid job of research about a critical event in the Cold War that other historians have overlooked or underplayed.
It is a must-read for students of the Cold War and for anyone who thinks nuclear brinkmanship is a productive way to conduct foreign policy. The book is a chronicle of a time when the United States and the Soviet Union came close to destroying civilization in a confrontation of thermonuclear insanity ... This is not a book for readers with a casual interest in the Cold War. Downing squeezes a wealth of details into a short period of time and provides background into once-powerful men who have passed into history, many without so much as a mention in today’s world ... It reminds us that those who hold our lives in their hands are not as wise as we wish they were.
An experienced historian and documentary producer, Downing has written a carefully researched and hugely readable account of the build-up to war, the momentum inexorably growing as he assembles each part of the jigsaw. Indeed, his narrative is so persuasive that by the time you are about two-thirds through, it takes some effort to remind yourself that the Third World War never happened ... On the face of it, Downing’s book has a happy ending ... Yet there is a chilling lesson here, too. If only one or two people had made different decisions, the world could easily have tumbled towards disaster.
Mr. Downing’s book gives abundant historical background, perhaps too much for readers familiar with the period. A useful later chapter depicts how realisation of the Soviet panic unfolded in the West, first in classified assessments and eventually, long after the event, in the public domain—not least thanks to Mr Downing’s television documentary, screened in 2008. He wisely avoids questions of the morality of nukes. Instead he focuses on the shortcomings that made accidental nuclear war far too plausible.
The Able Archer story is still relatively unknown, unlike the Cuban missile crisis. We can now make up for this thanks to Taylor Downing’s 1983 ... The whole story is replete with lessons ... If this was failure, it was one of policy, diplomacy and analysis, not just intelligence. In addition, as Downing makes clear, it was intelligence from within the KGB residency in London that finally opened the eyes of political leaders to the realities of thinking on the other side ... Quite right.